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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Preparing for El Niño

ARIEL ROBBINS / AGGIE
ARIEL ROBBINS / AGGIE

UC Davis experts discuss what to expect with El Niño hitting California this year.

Recently, the weather phenomenon “El Niño” has been an intriguing topic of conversation for many people, with talk of the storm hitting California this year. Due to this prediction, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences hosted a discussion panel and information session on Nov. 11 at the Walter A. Buehler Alumni Center to talk about El Niño and any challenges it may pose.

“El Niño is a phenomenon of the mostly equatorial Pacific Ocean atmosphere, characterized, for example, by unusually warm surface water temperatures, and other things, like trade rims across the Pacific,” said Nicholas Pinter, a UC Davis professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department. “I think of El Niño as sort of a threshold phenomenon that people look at and [then] measure Pacific water temperature [to] get this El Niño index. They say if it’s more than half a degree above average, that’s an El Niño.”

California is no stranger to El Niño, with a few of its strongest appearances occurring in 1982 to 1983 and 1997 to 1998. According to Pinter, the beginnings of El Niño have already hit California.

“This is a strong one — it is predicted to be one of the strongest three El Niños ever measured,” Pinter said. “It’s not just a prediction, it’s just a matter of what effects it’s going to bring to California.”

El Niño occurs every three to seven years on average, and is particularly strong in southern California. However, this is not to say that northern California will be exempt from heavy rainfall this year.

“The results [are] increased precipitation on the western coast of North and South America, and other important implications depending on where you are,” Pinter said. “The first one we […] recognized [was in] 1982 [and] ‘83. [El Niño] is also associated with effects as far as Africa and Europe. For California, the main concern is increased likelihood of heavy precipitation, rain and snow.”

The El Niño panel featured speakers from a variety of academic, scientific and governmental institutions to discuss worst-case scenario precautions that all Californians should take in wake of the storm. During the panel, many speakers focused on environmental impacts, particularly regarding the ongoing drought in California.

“El Niño has been the great wet hope, in public discussions in the last few months,” said Jay Lund, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “I’m kind of relieved to see that there’s something big changing in the climate and the sea conditions out in the ocean. Hopefully that will break whatever structure — and it’s a fairly resilient structure  — that’s been giving us this drought.”

El Niño may give many residents hope that this marks an end to the extreme drought that has caused water restrictions in many areas of California. However, at the panel, Lund forewarned that El Niño could still fail to completely remedy the drought.

“I’m glad to see a change, but historically, looking at the history of El Niños, that doesn’t give me a lot of solace,” Lund said. “Even if this year is fairly wet, we still have [a lot] of accumulated reduction and storage, mostly in groundwater. That makes it very likely that we will still have some sort of a drought for the next year unless it’s incredibly wet.”

Alleviating the seriousness of the drought is not the only possible positive outcome that Pinter and his fellow experts have hopes for with regards to El Niño.

“An event like [El Niño] also poses opportunities, and what we’ve learned [from] managing disasters elsewhere is that floods, for example, often catalyze important and positive changes,” Pinter said. “So we […] identify problems that need to be cleaned up to increase long-term resilience to hazards — commonly that’s done after a big disaster. The idea is to marshal the resources, [to] have this discussion beforehand, before the first drops of rainfall [and before] the first disaster occurs.”

Though El Niño is predicted to provide beneficial opportunities for California’s dry climate, there are also various challenges that come with the phenomenon. Not only could the drought still pose a problem afterwards, but Pinter and his experts determined that flooding could be a potential issue as well.

“Intense precipitation and individual watersheds on the American River or any place statewide means we need to be vigilant, particularly on the rivers without big empty reservoirs upstream of them,” Pinter said. “The second thing [I would look at is] this combination of fire followed by El Niño, [which] is a unique and rare combination that causes significant concern in the state.”

The recent Butte and Valley fires could play a dangerous role as well, said Jeffrey Lusk, director of mitigation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency Division.

“Seventeen hundred people lost their primary residence between those two fires,” Lusk said. “The fires do bring opportunities for pre-flood mitigation. Right now we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve, because the fires present us with a situation where we have an opportunity to mitigate and try to prevent a bad situation potentially from becoming much worse.”

The burned areas from the fires could be an issue to the environment due to the potentially dangerous effects if combined with floodwater.

“Some of the areas, including [those] close to Davis, [were] very intensely burned on steep slopes,” Pinter said. “So when you combine those burn areas with one of the largest El Niños ever, that is a frightening combination.”

Regardless of how devastating El Niño turns out to be for California, the experts agree that the most important thing that residents should keep in mind for this season is being prepared.

“[El Nino is] going to happen,” Lusk said. “We have to try and prepare.”

 

Written by: Allyson Tsuji – features@theaggie.org

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